Boys in a classroom in a small village school near Mindat town, Myanmar.
©Pavel Svoboda Photography/

Making sure no student gets left behind in Myanmar

In Myanmar, with a newly-elected government and an education system undergoing major changes, we are urgently recruiting VSO volunteers to help teachers adapt.

Myanmar was closed off from the world for 50 years. In this time, little changed in the education system. Education methods were focused on learning-by-rote: memorising information for students to later regurgitate in an exam setting.

Now, the education system is being dramatically turned on its head. Traditional methods are being abandoned, with a new focus on encouraging teachers to interact with their pupils.

However, Myanmar has one of the lowest rates of spending on education in the world. Teachers who have grown up with traditional methods of teaching are often managing huge classroom sizes with very few adequate resources to do so.

To help teachers get to grips with the new methods, pioneering education volunteers like Gwen Harris are sharing their own expertise.

Going back in time

Gwen Harris, education volunteer, volunteered in Myanmar from 2016-2018.
"Being a volunteer is a very fulfilling feeling,” said Gwen Harris, 63, who first volunteered in 2016.

Gwen Harris has worked in education for over 30 years before becoming a VSO volunteer, working with teacher trainers.

Gwen was struck by the difference between classrooms in Myanmar and the UK.

“Teachers will often be working with classes of 40 or 50 pupils, in resource-poor environments. The classrooms are bare.

“It’s almost like going back to a classroom in the UK 50 years ago.”

Gwen volunteered for a second time in 2018, working alongside the Ministry of Education to develop a new youth certificate to support young people who had dropped out of school.

Currently 60% of children starting grade one drop out before the end of middle school. Poverty is a major factor but another important reason is due to the lack of inclusivity in classrooms.

“The teachers aren’t taught to respond to individual needs, so the children who can’t keep up with the pace end up repeating years or dropping out.”

“There’s virtually never any disabled access, nor aids for visual impairments, nothing for children who are hard of hearing.

“As a result, disabled children aren’t getting the education they deserve.”

Small steps

The education system is now undergoing a massive overhaul, with a push to have more interactive classroom environments. But the teachers and teacher trainers need all the support they can get to make the transition, which is why we need volunteers like you.

Gwen Harris visiting a school, with the monk co-founder and teachers who have donated to the school.
©Gwen Harris
Education volunteer Gwen Harris is pictured here on a visit to a school set up by a monk to help children from poor backgrounds.

“Education equips people with the skills to have determination over their own lives, giving them the competence to help themselves. It’s great to see people develop, gain knowledge and skills,” said Gwen.

Gwen became a volunteer after retiring from working in a leadership role in education.

“Working in the public sector in the UK is very high-pressured. In Myanmar it was much less stressful though there were many other, different challenges.”

 “When I retired, I wanted to do something different. It was appealing to me because I could still use my professional expertise, but because I was there as a volunteer, I had more autonomy.

“I had pre-placement training in the UK, then in-country training when I arrived in Myanmar. The practical arrangements are covered by VSO, like flights and basic living costs.

“I felt a sense of security, volunteering with VSO, because it’s a large, international organisation. I knew I had VSO to support me.”

‘Don’t make any assumptions’

Gwen advises any would-be volunteers to go in with an open mind.

“Myanmar is a developing country, so you don’t have access to the same level of resources and expertise, and teachers don’t have the level of knowledge and training that you’d expect in the UK.

“Don’t make any assumptions. See how everything works first, what’s happening in classrooms, to get an idea of what the standards are. Then you can start to understand the constraints, and understand what it’s like to be a teacher in Myanmar.

“Volunteering challenges me, pushing me to use my knowledge and skills and apply them in a very unfamiliar context.

“You begin to realise that your experience in teaching is potentially very valuable, and it’s lovely to share this with people. Being a volunteer is a very fulfilling feeling.”

If you have a background in education, why not take a look at our education volunteering roles? You never know where you could end up.

See our education volunteering roles

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